Where do we belong? An ex-gay Catholic view of the Orlando Massacre
By Joseph Sciambra
By Joseph Sciambra
When I walked into the Castro District of San Francisco in 1988, I could not have picked a worse time in history to come-out as a “gay” man. It was the height of the AIDS crisis. That year alone, over 4,800, mostly “gay” men, died of AIDS in the US. The following year, the number of deaths would triple. Far into the next decade, my seemingly exuberant life became constantly interrupted as I was forced to stand by when one after another beautiful and once boundlessly hopeful young man fell silently into the grave.
Some of these dead boys I knew well, others were but among the countless shadows that brushed against me in the dimly-lit nightclubs; a few, I could hardly remember, for they existed merely as a collected catalogue of the near-faceless men I had spent a few moments with. They were those I would sometimes anonymously huddle up next to. Acts of shared mutual desperation had brought us together, and inevitably pulled us apart. Often, I would only fully recognize them in death. However, none of us wanted it this way. None of us traveled to “gay” wanting to die, no more than those similarly beautiful and hopeful young men who one night went to a local club.
But for my generation, what brought us together, even in the midst of AIDS, was a collective need to be accepted; sometimes, by anyone. For many of us had grown up as lonely and scared little boys; unsure of who we were on a most basic level of identity. But, as a child of the 1970s disco-era, where “gay” icons emerged from pop-culture for the very first time, by the time I was a teenager and avid devotee of Madonna – I was no longer embarrassed by who I thought I was. Yet, with “gay” men, at the most – making up about 4% of the population, finding like-minded allies and friends, especially in a relatively small town, was not an easy endeavor.
So, when I turned 18, with the sonorous masculine voices from the chorus of The Village People song “Go West” playing endlessly through my brain, I headed to San Francisco to be among my own kind. The first place I went to was a “gay” bar – a magical sort of place with a large dance floor crowded almost consistently with unbelievably attractive men. Earlier that night, walking down Castro Street, like a lost out-of-town tourist, the music of the Pet Shops Boys thumping through the air, drew me right through the open front door. Inside, everything I ever yearned for merged into one fantastic world of total happiness: the boy no one wanted, the scrawny kid who got knocked around, the sad little fairy who just wanted to play with the other boys, was suddenly the object of attraction; handsome and manly men bought me drinks and shoved each other aside in order to push up against me. Unlike the world at large, that I had just escaped – there was consistency and harmony here; there were occasionally some drunken and pointless arguments or fights, but, overall, everyone got along. To me, that was Truth.
Yet, apart from this public space, there were also dark recesses of the club, where men would often slip away to meet each other. Looking back now, I can see how desperate all of us were for love and acceptance, that the grinding against each other on the dance floor was never enough. Sometimes, these brief encounters left me feeling empty, but, just before, I had been alone, and now I wasn’t. Because these “gay” enclaves provided hope, that I wasn’t the only one, and that, amongst others who felt as I did, being “gay” made sense. We were looking for an identity, and the “gay” community provided us with one that fit. And, for a while – I was very happy. I was home, and I never wanted it to end.
But, it did end. Suddenly, although I recognized the always hovering reality of AIDS – it was something that happened to anybody, but me and my friends. Then people I knew began to get sick and die. It was random and quick. Some of us began to lose count. And I wondered why I was here; why we were all here. Had we been somehow marked for death? Was the unknown God of my childhood a ruthless overlord who hated us and wanted every gay man destroyed?
Those massive questions, while simply trying to survive the carnage – at the time, I could not even begin to comprehend. Later, when I was accorded a measure of calm and peace, I realized that everyone who walked into some gay bar or disco, or even a bathhouse or sex-club, went there because they had nowhere else to go. No matter what we did to ourselves, none of us deserved to die. Only we did, and, although we were terrified, we stayed put – where else could we go?
I came of age in the post-Conciliar Church of the 1970s. Then, a sort of seemingly benign indifference pervaded every aspect of Catholic education. This created a strict adherence to the subjective theory that all the long-held doctrines and teachings of the Church were inherently relative to certain individuals and situations. We were essentially told to create our own personal Jesus – to make our own world; and, that is exactly what we did. As for me, I made a “gay world and a “gay” God. When AIDS struck ever closer to me – I thought the God I created had turned against me.
The utter failure of the Catholic hierarchy in the US to swiftly and decisively clamp down on widespread dissent, specifically with regards to highly erroneous philosophies on homosexuality, became embodied in one man: Fr. John J. McNeill. In addition, there were other loud “gay” dissenters in the 1970s, namely Bishop Raymond Hunthausen, the late Fr. Robert Nugent, and Sister Jeannine Gramick; of the three, Gramick is still alive and active – wreaking havoc from outside and within the Church.
I will never forget a dear friend, one of the “gay” vanguards of the movement, who came-out in the revolutionary epoch of the 1970s, who repeatedly recommended, once he found out I had been raised Catholic, McNeill’s landmark book “The Church and the Homosexual.” My friend, who told me that he had once incessantly wavered about his somewhat overdue-coming of age as a “gay” man, he came-out in his late-20s, said Fr. McNeill confirmed that his reoccurring misgivings were unfounded. He pointed to something specifically that McNeill had written: “Human beings do not choose their sexual orientation; they discover it as something given.” He read aloud to me passages detailing McNeill’s contention that committed relationships between those of the same sex were as “holy” as those between men and women. Presently, he was in, from what I could tell, perhaps his third or fourth “steady” relationship. But, as I told him, my generation had grown up without any heavy lingering cultural, social, or religious hang-ups about sexuality; I simply knew that I was “gay” and knew where I belonged. My friend would die of AIDS a few years later.
I never contracted HIV, nonetheless I spent much of the 1990s on a constant cycle of antibiotics, trying, sometimes ineffectually, to stave off the endless sexually transmitted infections that kept coursing through my body. When I left “gay,” not by any choice, but because of the impending reality of death, I inexplicably, and almost immediately, went to speak with a Catholic priest. I explained everything I had been through over the past decade and how I wanted to leave San Francisco and the Castro. When I finished talking, he let out a sigh and said: “But, you were born gay, that’s where you belong.” He critiqued some of my methodology, that I had gone about being “gay” in a somewhat erratic and reckless way, and that I should try to “settle down” with one man.
Today, on certain points, many priests and prelates would agree with him; one recently said: “I believe people are born the way they are born and I believe that God creates us as we are.” But, even more disturbing is this statement: “For me, this inclination is a question mark: It does not reflect the original design of God and yet it is a reality, because you are born gay.” This is probably the worst sort of misdirected paternalism in the guise of liberal mercy. It’s an epic fail: while appearing to uphold Catholic teaching that homosexuality is ultimately not part of God’s plan, at the same time, they also condemn us to it – because, after all, we were “born gay.”
In an even greater self-destructive leap, immediately following the Orlando massacre, one Florida Bishop had this to say: “…sadly it is religion, including our own, which targets, mostly verbally, and also often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people. Attacks today on LGBT men and women often plant the seed of contempt, then hatred, which can ultimately lead to violence.”
This is decidedly not the Catholic Church and not what the Catholic Church stands for; although, I too, had to discover this for myself through trial and error. Like most “gay” men and women who crawl to the Church – we quickly discover that “pastoral” practices concerning homosexuality often depend on who you are talking to; this uncertainty in the priesthood can cause resentment, or a capitulation back to our “gay” identity – albeit in a more circumscribed form that sometimes embraces chastity. But, one thing I almost immediately knew – I did not want to go back. For, the Lord Jesus Christ had pursued me – and, on the night of my very conversion, I was involved in a scene so dark, it went beyond any of the comparably tame encounters that routinely take place in a “gay” nightclub restroom. But, at the last moment of my life, I was given a final choice, and I chose Him. But, shouldn’t the Church offer all “gay” men and women that exact same choice? Or, must we wait until death?
Yet, to some extent, the Church has contributed to the eventual death of some gay men and women, but not in the way this Bishop from Florida is proposing. For, it is in the laxity of (and abandonment of) Catholic teachings, not in their imagined harshness, that the Church is complicit. Because, in offering no alternative to the “gay” identity– this has not breed hate, but created outright rejection. Where the Church should be a defensive refuge from the chaos, uncertainty, and violence of the world, for many “gay” men and women, the Church has actually come to symbolize this chaos and disunity – even its hypocrisy, symbolized in the all-too-public spats and sometimes malicious disagreements among the prelates during the recent Synod. Despite what appeared on paper, the Church looked conflicted and confounded. The inability of some within the Church to present a clear and concise message on homosexuality has caused many to disregard the Church outright, and to turn to the only other world they know.
Unfortunately, some in the Church, like the Bishop from Florida, continue to make the same mistakes of the past, by constantly referring to us as gay, lesbian, transgender and LGBT; we are none of those things. We were not born “gay,” and we were not born damaged; we may have been hurt along the way, but, like the rest of humanity, we can recover and heal. We do not belong to an identity, we do not belong to a movement, and we do belong to a group. So don’t talk to us as if we do. We belong to God.
Is there any one brave enough to show us the way?
I see the pictures of the dead, and they remind me of the men I used to know – who died of AIDS so long ago. They, too, thought that “gay” was where they belonged. When will the Catholic Church welcome these men? But, not with false platitudes about being born “gay.” We must be welcomed into the Church – with Truth, and with Love.
49 precious lives were lost in one night, but since the HIV epidemic began, an estimated 311,087 “gay” men with an AIDS diagnosis have died, including an estimated 5,380 in 2012.
The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation. Every one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents and gifts as well. Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life. – Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons